That’s the Way It Wasn’t

At a Reuters editorial management course in Singapore around 1997, the attendees were being reminded about the principle of objectivity in journalism. To play his or her stated role in a global news organisation, the journalist had to be a perennial outsider with no affiliation.

At that point, the trainer theatrically looked over his shoulder as if to see that no-one else was listening and leaned in toward the class, sotto voce: “Actually, that’s not really true. We aren’t objective at all. Implicit in everything we write is an acceptance of the Washington Consensus.”

That assumption did not seem such a big deal then. We were nearly a decade into a period in which the wall between communism and capitalism had come down. The old eastern bloc and the developing world were falling over themselves to adopt the IMF model of liberalisation of trade and capital flows, fiscal restraint, privatisation, deregulation and competitive exchange rates.

But within months of our attending that course, the IMF prescription was coming under severe scrutiny, not least in Asia, where billions of dollars in ‘hot money’ that had poured into countries like Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea turned tail just as quickly, creating massive depreciations, bankruptcies, mass unemployment and recession.

In its one-size fits all prescription for resolving the crisis (which later engulfed Russia and Eastern Europe), the IMF was  roundly criticised as inept, naive and ideologically blinkered. Its Washington Consensus frame had proved inadequate in dealing with destabilising capital flows and the impact these might have on countries with immature banking, legal and financial systems.

For a financial journalist who had blithely accepted the neo-liberal consensus of the 80s and 90s as just the way things were, this crisis represented a wake-up call. One’s treasured ‘objectivity’ wasn’t so objective at all. In fact, it was just another frame that attempted to force messy reality into a set of prescribed values one had subconsciously and self-servingly adopted as the whole truth.

This ‘news as framing’ is one of the objections to traditional notions of of objectivity explored by University of Sydney media and communications senior lecturer Steven Maras in his new book ‘Objectivity in Journalism’.

“Frame blindness describes a situation where journalists fail to recognise the ideological nature of their own framing of issues,” Maras writes. “Framing relates to a key dilemma in journalism. On the one hand, reporters provide just the facts. On the other hand, they are teachers and storytellers compelled to draw on frames to educate, persuade and entertain,”

In what amounts to a comprehensive review of the academic literature, from classic studies by Walter Lipmann to more contemporary critics such as as Jay Rosen, Maras shows that journalistic objectivity is a much more slippery and fluid concept than the one defined by Walter Kronkite as “the reporting of reality, of facts, as nearly as they can be obtained without the injection of prejudices and personal opinion”. For one thing, the notion has evolved over the years and was not fully articulated as an ideal until the 1920s. It can mean different things in different cultures. And we can see it transforming again in an age of 24-hour news, social media and partisan outlets such as Fox.

Maras, in surveying a surprisingly rich vein of thinking around this issue, is careful not to insert his own thinking other than to say it is not an “either-or” argument. In other words, it is not simply a choice between the conservative, absolutist, facts-are-all, reporter-as-cipher view of journalism or the post-modernist, truth-is-relative view that reality is constructed and sold by hegemonic forces.

“It is incorrect to suggest that the argument that meaning is culturally constructed means there is no truth,” Maras writes. “Truths, even those constructed within formations of power and knowledge that are in a sense relative, retain their force.”

Objectivity, in this preferred definition, is not a passive concept, but an active one. It becomes an ideal, albeit an impossible one, that journalists work towards. In the meantime, they can focus on the attainable and practical goals of honesty, fairness, accuracy, completeness and complexity. It is not about just “reporting the facts”, but ensuring one does not leave out relevant facts. It is also about journalists recognising and accepting the tensions and compromises between their need to impart the reality of a story and their need to stand apart from it.

“There are two main ways that reflective human beings try to give sense to life, either by solidarity or objectivity,” Maras writes in a summary of the views of pragmatist Richard Rorty. “Journalism is caught uncomfortably and seemingly irrevocably between the two. Too much solidarity and one ceases to ask hard questions of the community. Too much objectivity and one finds oneself in the realm of non-human reality, transcending the world of the community and readers.”

My own view is that traditional journalism, as it is practised in much of the Anglosphere, leans too much toward traditional objectivity.  Journalists fail when they are blind to the influence of the cultural and ideological milieu from which they position their reporting. In a sense, the more they see themselves as standing outside it all, the more they are likely to be comfortably embedded, inside the machine, without being aware of it.

And this is why there is such disenchantment with so much traditional ‘mainstream media’ political and economic reporting. It stems from a refusal or at least a reluctance by the traditional press to at least reflect on the fact that they are part of the apparatus that they report on.  And that it is this standpoint that colours their view of the world.

It’s also why the Fifth Estate – the ideal of journalists working alongside the community, not in separation to it – holds so much promise.

‘Objectivity in Journalism’, Steven Maras, Polity Press, 2013

12 thoughts on “That’s the Way It Wasn’t

  1. The media pretend that they know more than the rest of us, but present their interpretation of the world as though it is the community view.

    During the exaggerated dissension by the media against the proposed media regulations, there was a deliberate attempt to confuse press freedom with the freedom of speech of the individual. They are not one and the same thing. During the last three years it has never been more evident how the media actively close down the voices of reasonable debate and present only certain views that they favour. They are not interested in free speech at all, but in having sufficient press freedom to control free speech.

    The problem at present seems to be that media outlets are presenting political propaganda as though it is the truth. At times they actively advance nonsense.

  2. Well may we say God save our democratic process, because nothing will save journalism.
    They have become the most despised group in Australia. They are the ones to embrace and spread lies for thirty pieces of silver.

  3. I woke in the early hours of this morning, to listen to ABC National, talk back radio. Regrettably I have no idea which programme it was, or who the resident commentariat were,but after hearing tier response to a lady of some 81 years,I was amazed bytheir patronising naivety. These two gentlemen have absolutely no idea that there is a large section of the public, who do not trust them, in any way. They do not trust them to tell the complete truth, do not trust them to keep their own opinion out of the discourse, and do not trust them faithfully report what happens without personal or corporate colouring of events.
    As Notus mentions above, we are in dire trouble. After all the revelations of media organisations hacking private correspondance, of media organisation bringing undue influence upon the political process, and now Government intrusion into private correspondence, journalists still do not understand. And please do not suggest this use of power and influence does not happen here in innocent Australia.
    I daresay that as the 4th Estate's influence comes under closer and more intense scrutiny they will squeal all the more. I only hope that is their death rattle, they have done a grave diservice to this nation for more than a generation.

  4. Anyone who could possibly suggest that the media in this country is not subject to the power and influence of one man is deranged.

    It is more than unfortunate that the government's media legislation didn't get off the ground.

    The squealing from the press about being denied “freedom of speech” is breathtakingly hypocritical, unless they believe that any attempt to ensure that they adhere to their own code of conduct is denying them freedom of speech and/or freedom of the press.

    But freedom of speech or the press does not entitle them to publish or disseminate lies or opinion as fact.

    They are increasingly irrelevant as people turn to the 5th estate and their own investigative abilities to find the facts and the truth.

  5. Further to the 5th Estate helpline – I have an emerging issue best tackled by a NSW resident.

    Since when did synthetic mind altering (LSD like) drugs become legal (causing a young man to believe he could fly and jump out a window to his death). The trade has been estimated in limited MSM reports @ $700M/year in Australia.

    Why have I not heard about this shady “decriminalisation” by stealth? Is big tobacco diversifying into new toxins for profit? Have the IPA set a policy framework for it?
    Are Indian black market traders and or large Chinese State drug companies diversifying??

    Were there any long-term clinical human trials tabled to allow their “healthy” admission into “legal” status as recreation drugs? Why aren't they just illegal?

    This issue seems to have up and jumped users into the abyss from nowhere? Who saw this coming? Who is profiting and were is this going – apart from down south quickly?

    Cheers all.

  6. “Since when did synthetic mind altering (LSD like) drugs become legal (causing a young man to believe he could fly and jump out a window to his death)”

    Specific drugs are made illegal, rather than being, by default, illegal.

    Hence it is hard for the law to keep up.
    Small alterations to existing drug molecules are all that is needed to escape the law, and for the most part, these drugs act in similar ways to the original.

  7. Thanks,

    I have noticed the MSM is just starting to ask harder questions about this issue over the last few days.
    Your local tobacconists' have (apparently) been selling some new “whacky named designer drugs” including bath salts that can result in heartbeat irregularities while your soaking in it. Nice.

    I guess if your already selling a known and proven toxic product, what's so unethical about selling some new unknown toxic consumables – they may even be proven to be non-toxic. It's all profitable until someone gets killed (An Old Chinese State Party Proverb).

    That's why we have State Coroners Courts here – to illustrate how poor our system is and then mop-up the mess in an isolated reactive way.

    I think we have ALL been kept napping with our media's other vital obsessions. There has been far too much noise on the ongoing PM's school sandwich tossing saga and Mal's off-putting menu choices to hear the Real News. It's got to be in there somewhere, like the new dangerous trends that are actually killing people (In this case a product sold at a local smoke shop in a mall near you).

    Will China have us all piled with drugs up to our eyeballs and send their gun boats off to Sydney to claim there own new “Hong Kong” trading port? UK Columnist Peter Hitchens has some pretty damning things to say about our growing drug dependent culture – his refreshing take on this issue is good food for thought.

  8. as there is no email address.and I cannot write to you. I have to say I disgusted
    that you have joined the rudd camp so I am told on the blog. I participate on.
    I am shocked as I use to always read your blog and participate, some one on our blog thought it was so much out of character, that may be your twitter feed had been hacked.

    the pm is a wonderful person and we will win with her,

    get on the streets like I have today and ask,
    the silent majority have had enough of the liberals the way they treat the p,m/

    I am so disappointed I will never read your blog or post again.

  9. Sorry to hear that anonymous. I appreciate your views. The truth is I'm not a member of any 'camp'. My comment was related to my PERSONAL view that the ALP has a better chance of winning the election with Rudd at the helm.

    I may be wrong of course. I don't pretend to have any specialist expertise about party politics. You'll notice this blog is about my profession, not about who's winning the political horse race every day.

    You should also know that I also personally like JG and admire her policy achievements. And I also believe she has been treated shoddily by the media. But as progressives, we have to focus on beating Abbott. My GUESS is that Rudd, properly reminded about his broader responsibilities, is best placed to do that. The ALP has some great policy achievements, thanks to JG. But a good product needs a good salesman. Rudd, love him or hate him, connects with a broader voter segment, including many people who might otherwise vote Liberal.

    Ultimately, my party political views are really not what this blog is about. If it was just about my opinions on party politics, I would have nothing much of authority or interest to say. It's about journalism at a craft level. I don't mind that you disagree with me about the daily political noise. It's all just opinion. And I make no claim to have any better insights than anyone else.

  10. Well Mr D it looks like its just you me and that Cathode ray tube TV set, now.
    For the record I am not a traditional Labor man, however if Labor was to trend back to a traditional labor like position I would be allot happier about it.
    Best regards

  11. Mr D,

    Unfortunately the craft you discuss here is the one that has had a huge influence in trying to destroy a very strong human being.

    A craft, as I would understand it, is much nobler than the relentless, cowardly pursuit of another. One who, guided by the demands of position and convention, cannot readily defend or otherwise refute even the grossest of allegations.

    Again, a craft, as I would understand it, is more akin the blacksmiths of old. The taking of raw, rough material and by dint of fire, air, water and sweat forge out of the raw something enduring and useful. Be it wheel rim, barrel hoop or sword.

    Todays journalists have no concept of how the elements of fire,water, air and sweat forge character, have forged nations and are an integral ingredient in humanity. In essence they seek to piss on the raw, rough material out of which so much of the good has been forged.

    Journalists of today are neither artisan or craftsman Mr D. They nothing other than dross. The waste left behind when the essential strength and integrity of the ore has been treated with fire,air water and sweat.

  12. A couple of terms I note in the most 'objective' and 'unbiased' Western media: Governments we like, whether elected or unelected, including the Communist and post-Communist dictatorships, are called 'governments.' Governments we don't like are 'regimes.' Try it. Vietnamese government. North Korean regime. Chinese government. Iranian regime. Another insidious one: It's well established that one is 'on' a small island, eg Guernsey, and 'in' a large island, eg Great Britain. But if you listen to BBC and ABC news broadcasts you also note that if your island, however large, is populated by non white people you are 'on' this island, eg 'on Sumatra,' an island which is twice the size of Great Britain, and 'in Tasmania,' a much smaller island populated by white people. The exception is an island whose name contains the word 'island' such as 'on the South Island.'

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